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Chalice by Robin McKinley

20 Aug

Robin McKinley is an author I really respect – I’ve read a few of her books, and one of the things I admire most is the variation in style and subject in her work. She’s got the amazing Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, some of the best adventure fantasy that I’ve ever read. Then she’s got some wonderful fairy tale retellings like Beauty and Spindle’s End. She’s also covered more of the urban fantasy/horror realm with Sunshine, an extremely popular and beloved adult fantasy with a Buffy-esque vibe. Clearly, girlfriend has some range. I picked up Chalice because I just trust McKinley to tell me a ripping good yarn in her talented and intelligent voice, and I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. Was it my favorite of her works? No, and I’m not sure why, but I’ll try to figure that out here.

While reading Chalice, I became aware that I had read this book previously, but I have no idea how long ago. I got that weird deja vu feeling, you know? But no matter, because I clearly didn’t remember details or the ending – huzzah! Chalice is technically classified as YA for grade 9 and up, but I think McKinley’s writing and ideas are sophisticated enough to be considered as completely satisfying for adults as well. (Please don’t misunderstand me – I read a ton of YA and don’t feel like there needs to be a distinction between young adult and adult books 99% of the time. Good writing is good writing, no matter what age it’s intended for.) Chalice refers to the ceremonial role that our heroine, Mirasol, fills in her kingdom. Once a beekeeper and woodskeeper, Mirasol was inexplicably chosen to fill the role of Chalice after the previous Chalice, along with the previous Master, had died in a fire. She is untrained, alone, and incredibly overwhelmed by her new position, the loss of her former life, and the aching despair she feels in her land. As a member of an “old” family and the Chalice, Mirasol can hear the earthlines of the land, magical currents that speak to the health and vitality of the country. Together with the rest of the ceremonial Circle, led by the Master, they must heal their country or watch it fall into the hands of the Overlord. Adding to her difficulties, the new Master has been called back from his indoctrination to Fire Priesthood and is barely human any longer. Mirasol and the new Master must learn how to fill their new roles, heal their land, and maneuver through the political and magical difficulties of their situation.

Phew, that was a long summary. Honestly, it’s so hard to sum up everything that’s going on in this novel, which in actuality doesn’t have an amazingly fast-paced plot. It’s more like Mirasol and the Master are both in incredibly difficult and complicated circumstances with SO MUCH riding on their success. McKinley does a fantastic job communicating the pressure Mirasol feels and takes a slow, methodical pace in exploring those feelings and their ramifications. It’s incredibly mature in that way – emphasis isn’t placed on exciting plot developments, but more on the discovery of oneself and the responsibilities all of us have to face at times before we’re ready. I read a review of this book that mentions it’s connection to Beauty and the Beast, and I can see that a bit. The Master is perceived as a bit of a “beast” in that he’s not quite human anymore. But I really felt like the relationship between the Master and Mirasol took a backseat to the discussion and exploration of the connection between human beings and the land and both the pleasure and the pain of tradition and duty. I’m trying to put my finger on why it didn’t satisfy me as completely as some of her other books have, such as The Hero and the Crown or Beauty. Maybe because the ratio of introspection to action was a little too heavily weighted toward introspection? I think I found the last quarter of the book a little slow, and then the ending tied everything up so neatly and quickly that I felt it was a little…easy. That’s a small gripe overall though; I really enjoy McKinley’s writing style and her ideas. I have a couple more of her books to read – I’ve never read Sunshine, surprisingly, and she has a newer book called Pegasus out now. I can’t even remember what a pegasus is – is it a unicorn that flies? Anyway, time for me to track that one down to find out!

Harry Potter the third

14 Aug

First off, let me apologize for my lack of posting this summer. Oh, to be lazy and eight months pregnant. I’ve entered a kind of head bubble that apparently only allows for thoughts about the baby, how I feel about the baby, how the baby will feel, etc. I’m boring even to myself. But it’s clearly some biological preparedness process since I’ve never been one to be super into babies, so I’m just going with it. Blogging is supposed to be something I do for fun, to keep me writing, and to share some of my nerdier thoughts with anyone who wants to listen. The moment I start forcing myself to blog is the moment I need to back away from the computer. I figure that sooner or later, my brainwaves will free up to encompass more thoughts than how I still need to buy a Diaper Genie, and that’s when my blogging will pick up again. 🙂

Now, on to the third installment in JK Rowling’s world-famous Harry Potter series. My leisurely re-read of the series was suggested to me and it was a fabulous idea. Clearly, my friend is a genius. The Prisoner of Azkaban seemed to stand out in my memory as my favorite of the series, and with good reason: it introduced Sirius Black. I lurve Sirius. He is an awesome, awesome character, so seemingly sinister but with a heart of gold. And can I just say: Gary Oldman? Just…magnifico! Perfect casting choice, movie peeps. Plus, I think this may be the last book where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are just kids. Is it the fourth book where teenage hormones come into play and Harry in particular starts acting like a little, pubescent snot? God, I’m old – I don’t identify with the kids anymore.

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry faces a threat besides the most evil of evil, Lord Voldemort. Sirius Black has escaped from the infamous wizarding prison Azkaban and is being hunted down by dementors, sort of ghostly, tall things that sucks all the happiness out of you and can even steal your soul. Yikes. What Harry finds out pretty quickly is that Sirius was his father’s best friend and was imprisoned for killing 13 people after his allegiance to Voldemort was discovered. Also, he betrayed Harry’s parents and was the reason Voldemort was able to find them and kill them in the first place. Poor Harry must live under the onus of being stalked by one of the most dangerous criminals the wizarding world has ever known, all while striving to win Quidditch matches, sneak into Hogsmeade, pass exams, and just generally survive his third year at Hogwarts.

I do love this one. You get to learn a ton of backstory about Harry’s father and his three best friends, which is always fun because you get some Hogwarts history and learn more about the vast world JK Rowling has built up around Harry. Rowling is masterful at weaving subplots into the whole, so Professor Snape’s character also is illuminated while Harry has adventures with the Marauder’s Map and Whomping Willow. You always get the sense that she’s building to a crescendo, and that no detail or backstory is trivial or unnecessary. Snape is just so venemous and, well, mean most of the time, but in this third book you start to get an idea of why he holds such a grudge against Harry. Draco is just as horrible as ever, and Hagrid just as good-natured and bumbling. And I don’t want to give anything away to the 2 people worldwide who have yet to read this book or watch the movie, but something good (in a “family” way) happens for Harry and my heart just melted for him. More please!

Harry Potter, the second time around

9 Jul
Guided by some stellar advice from a friend, I decided to reread the Harry Potter series. Is there a more enchanting, whimsical series to read? I’m totally brought back to the first time I read this series, how I waited for each book to be released and then bought them in hardback because I just couldn’t wait. I’m even magically transported to the time in my life when I was reading these books – ah, good ol’ college. And because I’ve read them all and seen the movies, I feel no urge to rush through them. I’m just taking my time, basking in the glow of Hagrid and Diagon Alley and Professor McGonagall. (I have a deep, burning NEED to visit Diagon Alley. The idea of shopping for all those magical instruments and ingredients sounds sooo amazing.)

I don’t know if this is a universal opinion or not, but I LOVED the series debut, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I loved being introduced to the magical world alongside Harry. I mean, is there any better fantasy than being horribly mistreated and unloved all your life, then suddenly finding out how special and important you are? Poor Harry is abominably treated by the Dursleys, who I loathe with every ounce of myself. And then, glorious Hagrid shows up and whisks Harry away to learn about pictures that move, Quidditch, chocolate frogs that jump, and of course Hogwarts. And Harry finally gets friends! Just totally heartwarming and exciting.

I’m currently on the last 30 or so pages of the second book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I like this one too, though not as much, and I can’t tell if that’s because I owned the movie adaptation of this book and have seen it a hundred times, so maybe I’m just bored with it? Or, because of the snakes. I have a terrible, terrible phobia of snakes, and the creepiness of the basilisk just squick me out. It reminds me of a news story I read a few years ago about how scientists had found a prehistoric skeleton of a snake the size of a bus. A BUS. I think I still have the creepy crawlies from reading that.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I remember being my favorite. Maybe I should do a simultaneous watch-along with the movies as well? That way, I’d be able to see Gary Oldman, who plays Sirius, soon. Nothing wrong with that!

Two DNFs: this pains me

20 Jun
I’m in a bit of a reading slump right now – nothing seems like the right fit for my mood, and I feel too lazy to go to any real effort to jumpstart my habit. That’s why this post especially pains me. It’s times like these when I go to trusted authors that I’ve enjoyed in the past. What better way is there to get your mojo back than to return to an author’s voice or style that really moves you? One caveat: like I said, I’m slumpy right now, so I’m not holding these Did Not Finish books against the authors at all. They still rock.

First up, I tried to read Dianna Wynne Jones’ Hexwood. I hadn’t heard of this particular title of hers, but I’ve come to really respect and enjoy her weird world. I mean, Howl’s Moving Castle is a phenomenal book (which incidentally became one of my favorite movies) and I recently read and enjoyed House of Many Ways (which it looks like I didn’t review…curious), so I thought for sure anything I picked up from Jones would be a winner for me. Plus, with her recent passing in 2011, it feels really wrong to not have a glowing review for any of her works. Alas, I didn’t like Hexwood and gave it up after 100 pages or so. It was just too odd and unstructured for me right now. It’s about a motley crew of characters from different times, places, and dimensional realms who interact with each other in an enchanted world. Because I didn’t finish it, I don’t know how it all worked out or what significance each character had, and I can see in hindsight that it’s a very intelligent book that I probably would have enjoyed another time. Now, though, the jolts in time and space were too disorienting for me, and I had trouble caring about any of the characters. One of the blurbs on the cover, from The Washington Post, said it’s a “an intricate mesh of romance, science fiction, mythology, and rite of passage.” Sounds amazing, but didn’t work for me. I’m going to hold onto it and give it another chance later on.

Next DNF for me was Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. Quinn is a romance author that I usually love and can depend on for light romantic fare. She admittedly mentions in her forward that she tried a different tack for this book – she had the h/h fall in love at first sight as teenagers. He’s an earl-to-be, she’s a vicar’s daughter, and their star-crossed love follows the predictable path of heartbreak at first. Quinn seemed skeptical in her ability to pull off the “love at first sight” trope, and like her, it’s not my favorite plot twist either. I just…don’t get it. Attraction, yes. Chemistry, definitely. “I love you with my whole soul and can’t imagine being apart from you” after the first meeting? I don’t buy it, and couldn’t. Because I didn’t believe in their connection and hadn’t really bought in to their love, the resulting plot twists didn’t do much for me. Robert, the hero, is a huge dick to the heroine after the Big Misunderstanding, which is understandable but just grated on my nerves. Victoria, the heroine, manages her disappointment well, in a Jane Eyre, “I will survive” kind of way that I liked. BUT. She inexplicably (to my mind, at least) digs her heels in at a certain point and it really slowed down the development of their relationship and the storyline for me. I eventually lost interest when I realized I didn’t care enough about either of them to see how they ended up. Just wasn’t for me. Still, this is the first of her books that didn’t really grab me, so I’m just writing it off as a fluke.

So there you have it. I’m trying a different tack now by delving into some non-fiction I’ve gotten from the library. I’m working on Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, & Butter, a chef memoir that I mentioned a few months ago. So far, I’m really liking it, not just because I love food and spent a fair portion of my working life in various restaurants, but also because homegirl is an excellent writer. Wicked combo. Then I’ll get to a gardening memoir by Margaret Roach – I’ve recently begun cultivating my smallish patch of dirt in my yard and am super into it. Yay for growing things!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

12 May
Yo, I finally read The Hunger Games. It only took me, oh, a year or so to do it. And for no good reason other than I figured I’d get around to it. Sometimes, inexplicably, I can get buzz-averse, where if a book gets too famous, I avoid it because I feel like I’m supposed to like it, and then I get all defiant. Weird, I know. But after the movie came out and all my girlfriends were waxing rhapsodic about it, I knew I should give it a go. So glad I did, because it really is an exciting book worthy of the hoopla.

I think I may be the last person in the free world to read this book, so I’ll just give a very short synopsis here. The country of Panem now exists where America once did and consists of twelve distinctive districts surrounding the Capitol. Some time ago, the districts rose in rebellion and were soundly beaten, and since then, the Capitol has instilled the rather barbaric tradition of the Hunger Games. Every year, all twelve through eighteen (I think?) year olds must enter a lottery – a boy and a girl from each district are picked from this lottery to be entered into The Hunger Games as tributes. These Hunger Games are awful – 24 kids are dropped into an unknown wilderness and must kill each other to survive. Only one can win. It’s like The Lord of the Flies meets Brave New World, with a little bit of The Wizard of Oz thrown in (descriptions of the Capitol and its aesthetics kept reminding me of Oz).

As you can imagine, there’s lots of political and sociological implications in the setup of The Hunger Games. The Capitol frames The Hunger Games as a chance to honor your district, but everyone knows it’s little more than a punishment as well as a horrific way for the Capitol to amuse itself by placing bets and sponsoring the participants, like a giant, death-filled soap opera. There’s a lot of discussion among Katniss (the girl tribute from District 12), Peeta (the boy tribute from District 12), and their support crew on engineering their look, presentation, and “story” to appeal most to the Capitol, an effort that makes Katniss sick at the hypocrisy and lies. It’s very meta and kind of reminded me of The Truman Show, where somebody’s real life is being made into sport for the amusement of an audience.

I did love Katniss – I texted my friend that she was “a beast” at one point. I’m pretty sure if I was dropped into the Hunger Games alongside her, she’d kick my ass in 2.5 seconds. And she’s such a tomboy, really – she is almost willfully ignorant of how others, especially boys, are affected by her. Which brings me to Peeta [this is kind of spoiler-y, so please don’t read on if you don’t want to hear details], who seems like a really nice guy and I don’t fault the character for just being stand-up and kind. But…the love angle. It didn’t really work for me. The reader is supposed to believe Peeta has carried a torch for Katniss for almost his whole life, and he demonstrates this by repeatedly saving her life at great personal danger and risk to his own. But, Katniss doesn’t even know him. They’ve never even had a conversation, and she’s convinced he’s faking an interest in her during the competition to appeal to viewers. This honestly seems like a logical assumption on her part, and when he’s hurt by her admission that she’s confused about how she feels about him and had been playing up any romantic connection for the cameras, I got a little annoyed. I mean, dude, she was fighting for her life in there and she doesn’t even know you apart from recognizing you from her district as the baker’s son, and he gets all bent out of shape that she didn’t fall madly in love over the past two weeks? Just didn’t feel right to me, but it’s a minor complaint.

I was totally into this book, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy to find out how all the drama and intrigue plays out.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

3 Feb
This book DESTROYED me. I’m talking heaving sobs, running nose, and my cat looking at me in alarm. This is not the norm for me – yes, I cried while watching The Notebook (don’t judge me) and March did startle a sob out of me, but usually I just tear up when reading a sad or moving scene. But A Monster Calls just dug deep into me and wrenched out all my childhood fear about losing a loved one and how scary and isolating that would be. I hadn’t realized I’d carried those fears with me into adulthood, but there I was, sobbing while reading the last thirty or so pages. This isn’t coming off like a ringing endorsement to GO and READ THIS BOOK, but it is. This book is good for your soul.

Conor O’Malley has been having nightmares that wake him up screaming. Conor would do anything to escape these nightmares, but one night, at 12:07 AM, a real nightmare comes to visit. This nightmare is a monster, formed from the limbs of the yew tree outside, and it comes for Conor. Surprisingly, Conor isn’t scared – how can anything be scarier than the nightmare he lives through every night? Along with the incessant nightmares, Conor’s mom is dying of cancer, and his world has shrunk to a very small sphere containing himself, his mother, his acidic grandmother, and the various kids at school, most of whom ignore him in his misery. Harry, the school bully, doesn’t ignore Conor, though, and Lily, his oldest friend, tries to reconnect with Conor. Conor’s pain creates an almost physical barrier around him, and only the monster can reach him.

As the monster begins to draw out Conor’s pain like draining the infection on a wound (gross image), the reader begins to see just how deep it goes. The monster tells Conor that Conor has called him to help, and that he will do so by telling him three stories. After the third story, the monster will ask Conor to tell a fourth story, his truth. Conor is more than skeptical of this weird being that he’s half-convinced is a figment of his imagination, but he’s desperate for something. What I loved about these stories is there’s no obvious right or wrong, no satisfying justice or heroes and villains, a fact of life that truly is tough to learn as a kid. For someone like Conor, who is losing his mom to a disease they can’t out-fight, it is resoundingly true. The whole book builds and builds tension, so that by the time of the final climax, the reader is just as exhausted as Conor and just as ready to finally hear the truth. And that sobbing I talked about? It’s a relief, honestly.

If you’ve got a case of the book touchies like I do, you’ll love this book. It’s beautiful. The glossy pages (a happy surprise) are illustrated by Jim Kay in stunning and creepy black and white. The monster is indeed monstrous-looking, and truly looks like an amalgam of tree parts representing something man-shaped. The illustrations almost reminded me of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books in their starkness, which I remember completely freaked me out in middle school. A Monster Calls‘ drawings were more nature-based than that, but the jarring quality is the same for me. The book also involved an interesting collaboration between Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness – Dowd came up with the idea for the story, but died before she was able to write the book. Ness took that idea and created A Monster Calls, dedicating the book to Dowd. Considering Dowd herself died of cancer, it seems a lovely tribute to have taken her final story idea and turned it into such a beautiful book.

Jane by April Lindner

24 Jan
Show me anything to do with Jane Eyre and I’m guaranteed to like it. Charlotte Bronte’s classic tale of gothic love between an orphaned, plain governess and the temperamental Mr. Rochester is extremely satisfying; not only is the writing beautiful, but Jane’s journey of self-discovery makes you root for her eventual happiness all the more. She may be one of the most put-upon heroines of all time: beaten, ignored, underfed, abandoned, and alone, Jane comes to rely on her inner strength and beauty and shuns the superficial and shallow. That’s not to say she’s prissy – no, she loves to eat and paint, and she comes to learn how to love. April Lindner made a good choice by basing her YA novel Jane on Bronte’s classic story. There are some spoilers in this review, but if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you already know what’s going to happen anyway.

Jane is a young college student who has recently lost her parents, and with no money, she goes to work as a governess. Jane becomes the governess to Nico Rathburn’s young daughter Maddy, a precocious little thing who only needs attention and a firm hand. Nico is a world-famous rock star with a questionable past who is planning a comeback tour. As Jane and Nico get to know each other at his secluded country estate, a love blossoms between them. Their pursuit of that love uncovers some very unpleasant secrets, and Jane is left to figure out how to balance her love of Nico with her love for herself.

Lindner kept very close to the original story line, only changing a few little things here and there to keep it modern. Jane herself is perhaps a little more feisty, but her directness and plain-speaking are the same. I loved how some of the conversations between her and Nico Rathburn (our new Mr. Rochester) really echoed exactly how Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester spoke in the original version – that’s not an easy task. And oh, the baddies are still so bad. Man, I really wanted more comeuppance for the villains, but again, Lindner is faithful to the original. Jane’s eventual happiness is worth so much more after you read how devalued and mistreated she is for most of her life.

Ok, seriously, spoiler time from now on!

I think Lindner did a valiant job of justifying why Nico didn’t divorce his wife Bibi after their marriage turned so horribly wrong, but it didn’t ring 100% true for me. Guilt can be a powerful motivator, but when he realized he was in love with Jane, I found it hard to believe that, in our modern times with its easy divorces, he wouldn’t have gone through with the divorce rather than try to commit bigamy and lie to Jane. Still, I wasn’t about to be Debbie Downer and let it jerk me out of the story, so I moved past my doubts. Also, substituting the class divide between Jane Eyre’s governess position and Mr. Rochester’s employer position by making Nico a rock star was a great idea – to me, it made the jump from their relationship as employee/employer to lovers even more dramatic.

I expressed a little doubt when I mentioned I was going to read Jane because I wasn’t sure how some of the modernizations would work. However, after reading Jane, I think Lindner did a great job of staying true to the original while imparting her own flavor. Considering the way I tore through it in one day, I’d say it’s a nice way to spend a rainy day.